Friday, December 26, 2008

Spooky quiz - try it

At the end of this message, you are asked a question. 
Answer it immediately.
Don't stop and think about it. Just say the first thing that pops into your mind.

This is a fun 'test'... AND kind of spooky at the same time! Give it a try, then e-mail it around (including back to me) and you'll see how many people you know fall into the same percentage as you. Be sure to put in the subject line if you are among the 98% or the 2%. You'll understand what that means after you finish taking the 'test.' Now - just follow the instructions as quickly as possible. Do not go to the next calculation before you have finished the previous one.. You do not ever need to write or remember the answers, just do it using your mind. You'll be surprised. 

Start: How much is: 


15 + 6 


3 + 56 


89 + 2 


12 + 53 


75 + 26 


25 + 52 


63 + 32 


I know! Calculations are hard work, but it's! nearly over.. 

Come on, one more! ... 

123 + 5 



Now look at the first comment for the answer....

Monday, December 15, 2008

Cognitive overload – why we’re in the forgetting not learning game

Victor Hugo went on holiday after publishing Les Miserables but couldn’t help writing to his publisher to see how sales were going. He wrote a letter with just one symbol ‘?’ and his publisher replied ‘!’. I love this story as Occam’s Razor is my guiding principle (the minimum number of entities to reach your goal).

On an academic note, Itiel Dror gives some fine talks, and if you’re lucky, he’ll bring his ‘brain in formaldehyde’ along, and pass it around the audience. It’s to force the point that the brain is the focal point for all learning, and that without knowing how it works, you’ll be a massively inefficient teacher and/or learner. He’ll also take you through some exercises to show the severe limits of your working memory.

Brain is a filtering and forgetting machine
Cognitive overload usually results in a loss of psychological attention. We all know the signs, drifting into other thoughts, feeling confused.... The brain is a highly selective organ and has some heavyweight filters. The first is sensory input, the second is our working memory, and then there’s a whole battery of processes that can aid or hamper encoding, deep processing and retention in long term memory. In other words, we have evolved to learn only what our ancestors thought was useful to us and ditch the rest. The brain is not a learning machine; it is a filtering and forgetting machine.

Cutting consciousness down to size was the subtitle of Tor Norretranders excellent The User Illusion, a book devoted to mapping out the limits of consciousness. Every second we ignore and discard millions of bits of data and the tiny residue is consciousness. Most people have no idea about how perception and the representation of the external world works in consciousness – but the illusion is that it is about what we need, not what actually exists. Out of the eleven billion bits of sensory information from eyes, ears, smell, taste, balance and touch, we experience a tiny fraction in consciousness. Unbelievably we seem to process about 16 bits a second and even then it passes quickly into the past and forgetfulness. Then upper limit seems to top out at 50 bits per second. Learning is about catching things in this fast panning spotlight and encoding them in such a way that they can be remembered. This is like juggling a never-ending series of balls and occasionally, and deliberately, popping the relevant ones into your pocket. On top of this we tend to operate with only one or two modalities at a time, sight, smell, hearing etc. making consciousness a process of selection and rejection.

Even worse consciousness is full of deceit and deception. It is always trying to get you to do things other than learning. It’s a dangerous world out there and we’re genetically disposed towards getting our rocks off, so placing young men and women in a crowded classroom with a herd of close proximity mates is unlikely to promote psychological attention.

Much of the effort in education and training is wasted as it results in instant or near-term forgetting. We know that working or short-term memory is severely restricted, and without adequate rehearsal and spaced practice, little or nothing is learnt. This is why chunking and the parsimonious presentation of content is essential, not just desirable.

So if this is the demand sign of the equation, what’s the supply side like?

Courses are bloated
Many courses are bloated with material that is quite simply unnecessary. It’s common practice to load up a course with stated learning objectives at the front, followed by an overlong introductory session on the history or background of the topic. You see this at conferences where experienced executives spend 5/10 minutes opening their presentation with slides about their organisation; IBM, Microsoft, Cisco – as if we didn’t know that they’re big, have loads of employees and operate in lots of countries!

In e-learning you see it with overlong animations, animations that are illustrative and not instructive, over-written text and spurious graphics that simply match the nouns in the text. Almost all e-learning programmes have text that has not been adequately edited. Interfaces are not consistent or fine-tuned and screens are too busy. Then there’s the absurd text plus identical audio. Note that in 3D worlds I think this is different as your avatar increases attention and forces actual performance. Consciousness is a simulation and that’s why simulations work.

In many courses, subject matter experts load the content up with over-long explanations, examples and legal stuff, as they don’t know anything about learning. If the content has been passed through ‘legals’ it will have gathered a lot of messy unreadable moss.

Delivery designed for dumping
Courses offer the illusion of learning through their breadth and depth of content. In reality, a tiny fraction is retained by learners and even then, our memories demand that this knowledge decays rapidly, without practice. Traditional learning delivery therefore seems to be designed for forgetting – talks, lectures etc. In addition to being too ‘knowledge’ based – because it’s easy, there’s a dearth of learning by doing, spaced rehearsal and practice. We’re a profession who are stuck in ‘teacher-mode’.

Online/offline overload
Now I happen to believe that cognitive overload, although common both online and offline, is commoner offline. That’s why I’m in favour of more online education and training. It’s an observable phenomenon among all ages. I’ve been wholly absorbed in games, programming, research and writing for up to 8-10 hours, almost without a break. My ‘flow’ experiences on this scale are largely online. This is especially true for children who find it difficult to find the intrinsic motivation to stay focussed. It also gives us the ability to implement spaced rehearsal and practice, by both reminding us that it is necessary and delivering the relevant content or practice.

Epilogue by Picasso
A man on a train once asked Picasso why he didn’t paint people as the way they are. When Picasso asked him what he meant by this expression, the man took out a photograph of his wife. “That’s my wife” he said, and Picasso replied “Isn’t she rather small and fat?”

In short, everything is too noisy, too ‘presented’ and too long.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Teacher sacked for saying santa doesn't exist

This interesting seasonal story made me think – do teachers have to lie to keep their jobs? Do they have to pretend to believe in Santa, tooth fairies, bogeymen, Narnia, angels, Jesus, Allah and God. The parents of one tearful child explained that the teacher had said this because of her religion. In other words, her actual truth (Santa doesn’t exist was trumped by the view that her religious views were false).

In England state schools have to teach Religious Studies by law. In other words it is decreed that teachers must lie, as they cannot logically all be true. In fact, they are by definition a range of relativist beliefs, the tragedy being that their believers are absolutist in their convictions. Even worse the law states that Christianity must have a prominent position in all this. In other words, let’s tell lots of lies but we have one lie that needs more time than the others.

If this wasn’t bad enough a daily act of worship is also mandated by law, with a 51% bias towards Christianity. Thankfully, the great majority of schools, as reported by Ofsted, simply ignore this law. It would seem that legally mandating the daily chanting of lies is a step too far for most people.

What a mess. The lesson here, I suspect, is that education should be secular and that religion is a matter of personal belief and has no role in schools, as it causes more problems and contradictions than it’s worth. Religious education is a farce. It needs to be replaced by Philosophy which takes a more ‘educational’ approach to such issues.


The teacher wasn’t sacked; she was a substitute teacher who is still registered. The school, in Manchester, simply said they wouldn’t use her again.

Pedagogy – faddish, non-empirical and lopsided

Reach for my gun

Whenever I hear the word ‘pedagogy’,  like Goebbels, I want to reach for my gun. The language of learning is a mishmash of backward-looking classical, industrial and behaviourist terms, but this is the one that masks an uncomfortable truth. Pedagogy means the ‘science of teaching’ but science is rarely a guiding hand in teaching. More often than not, so-called ‘pedagogy’ is a hotchpotch of confused practice. When you see genuinely efficient teaching, the usual sign being n attentive, engaged, note-taking or active learners, it contrasts wildly with the commonly observed inattentive, disengaged, no- note-taking, inactive (or active in the wrong way) learners.

Pedagogy – the science of teaching

If you want a heavy dose of how unscientific pedagogic talk can be I refer you to the journals Radical pedagogy and Pedagogy, Culture & Society. Here you’ll find evidence-free content of such mind blowing banality that you really will wonder whether teaching can survive the onslaught of non-empirical and faddish thought.

For a sobering account of educational research, I recommend James Tooley’s Educational Research: A Critique, commissioned by Ofsted. It was written some time ago, but not much has changed. It’s a worrying read, or as Tooley says in the Foreward  ‘a pretty grim business’. Tooley studied 41 articles across four academic journals and judged them on the quality of their empirical research and within this quantitative and qualitative evidence, with a stress on sample size and the objectivity of the researchers.

What did he find? Most of the papers were of unacceptable quality. He found an abundance of subjectivity, with mostly content taken from secondary sources without citing the primary source. Much of it was ‘second rate’ .... irrelevant to classroom practice and caught up in arcane disputes’. It reminded me of the permanent secretary who famously described the then Department for Education and Schools’ as a ‘knowledge-free zone’.

Seeds of its own destruction

The word ‘pedagogy’ contains the seeds of its own destruction, as the ‘science of teaching’ is hopelessly lopsided if it is not rooted in learning. By side-stepping the real science in the psychology of learning it simply observes one-sided practice. This is not a bad thing in itself, if it is done well, but let’s not pretend that it is anything like a full picture. It’s like a cricket writer writing only about bowling, never batting or fielding (in US pitching in baseball without batting and fielding).

The consequences for the use of technology in this one-eyed view of learning, is that teacherless interventions are not taken seriously. It is assumed that teaching is a necessary condition for learning – but let’s be crystal clear on this - it’s not. The vast majority of actual learning takes place WITHOUT teaching.  Teaching can induce good learning but it is not a NECESSARY condition for learning. Most pedagogic theorising assumes it does.

Radical pedagogy

I’d much rather redefine pedagogy as ‘the science of teaching and/or learning’. This really would allow us to develop more radical pedagogies. Actually it may in the end be better to abandon the word altogether. How far could a radical pedagogy go? Let’s imagine we had no existing infrastrucure or practice. Working up from ground zero  I’d put forward two sets of ideal features for an optimal pedagogy:

Seven cognitive features:

Achieves high levels of psychological attention

Avoids cognitive overload

Allows efficient encoding into long-term memory

Provides opportunity for spaced practice

Results in efficient recall from memory

Results in the competent application of that learning

Promotes further autonomous learning

 Seven practical features:

Accessible – when learners want and need it

Flexible – in a practical format for that learner

Self-paced – matches speed of learner

Personal – suited to that person’s needs

Repeatable – caters for repeated experience

Scalable – available to large numbers of learners

Cheap – cost must be kept low

Traditional teaching rarely achieves many of these fourteen goals. This is simply how it is, it is not an attack on the professionalism or abilities of teachers themselves, it’s simply a losing battle when the cohorts are up, to 30 or more.  The basic model– the classroom – is a busted flush.

Future pedagogies

Teacher pedagogies are difficult to pin down as they are mediated by real people, who have their foibles. Any pedagogic practice is subject to the personality and capabilities of the teacher. If we can develop and capture pedagogies that disintermediate teachers this must be to the benefit of learners and learning. This is a big ask, but it’s one worth pursuing.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Pearson’s new Fronter - good news for e-learning

M&A market for e-learning

Capital is being dammed up in investment companies and it needs an outlet. I have been doing on-going  work for a private equity house across Europe, and believe me, there’s real interest in investing in e-learning. Curiously, the credit crunch seems to have accelerated that interest. I can name four private equity groups who have or want to invest in this area. This is a damn good sign.

Fronter bought

Confirming my view that there are sectors that are relatively immune from the credit crunch, Pearson have gone to lapland and bought Norwegian company Fronter. This should be a good Christmas present  for Roger Larson, one of the founders.He gave a terrible keynote at Online Educa last week, a pure sales pitch, and the largely educational audience didn’t like it one bit. This was a shame, as the content of his talk was actually quite informative. It was a triumph of bad style over substance. However, they really have done something that works, with large numbers of students in schools. Rather than doing largely useless research they’ve actually done something in the real world that is helping thousands of students to learn.

This pushes their platform into the big time, as the winners in the VLE market tend to be those with sales and marketing clout and global reach. But it won’t be that easy. In the UK, they have proof of concept with the London Grid for Learning but London is not often the catalyst for the rest of the UK market. There can be no doubt that these systems can revolutionise learning in schools. Students, teachers and parents all have access to a transparent online system that provides communications, assignment submission, planning and shared resources for teachers. Homework can be seen to be set online, submitted online, and marked. This solves an eternal problem, often the subject of angst by parents. Teachers, of course, don’t like this function, as it forces them to set and mark homework. Teachers can also reuse materials (the source of much inefficiency in schools). Above all it provides an ‘always-on’ platform for students to structure and advance their learning.

Not all plain sailing

It won’t all be plain sailing. This is a fragmented market. There are dozens of vendors and sales are often down at individual school level, where cost of sale is high and budgets low. Once bought schools rarely have the project management skills to implement these systems efficiently, and there’s fierce resistance from more traditional teachers.


In 2009 we can look forward to some sensible consolidation in this market. There are financially weak companies that need to be bought or merged and, others that could expand by being properly capitalised.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Credit crunch survival guide

Will e-learning be accelerated or decelerated by the credit crunch? One thing’s for sure – training budgets and training departments will be hit hard. Some organisations will disappear. Others will not train as they’re laying off staff. Some will take the budget and decimate it, as they need to save money they to simply survive. Some, however, will see learning as a survival mechanism. In this market it may be useful to red, amber or green each sector.

Some green shoots and surprises as a tsunami of cost cutting washes out old stand-up methods and looks for things to be faster, cheaper and scalable.

Financial sector may be surprisingly robust. They’re merging and, as traditional training has clearly failed to have much effect on their behaviour, using e-learning to solve compliance and regulatory pressures.

Defence has guaranteed budgets, for the time being, and the world is a scary place, and getting scarier.

Adult learning as massive unemployment will mean massive retraining needs. Look out for Train to gain and other government initiatives that combat this problem.

Oil and gas are running out so these organisations have to get smarter to survive. Until alternatives are found, we still need to heat, eat and get around. They’ve got us over a barrel.

Challenging but these guys are survivors.

Healthcare will carry on like leeches on our backs.

Telcos will continue to charge too much, feed our addiction and pollute public spaces.

Education will drag itself into the 21st century - maybe.

Government departments will be squeezed but benefits and training will not.

Blood all over the classrooms in these sectors.

Automotive’s a multiple pile up. They’ve been looking in their rear view mirrors for far too long. Some big names are crashing out of business, others will lay off staff. All will have to reduce costs.

Retail is in big trouble. We’ve shopped til we drop and the party’s over. Closing down sales.

Construction has ground to a halt with massive layoffs. Bricks don’t mean clicks.

Airlines will consolidate or crash. The combination of credit and climate crunch is causing them serious pain.

Damage limitation
The so called experts didn’t predict the crash, so we can safely assume that they don’t know how long it will last. So, if I were running an e –learning organisation, I’d certainly be rewriting my sales and marketing plan, and readjusting now. I’d also be selling less on learning and more on business benefits. The Next generation Learning campaign has a pretty good list:

1. Achieve more with less - optimise limited budgets and time
2. Gain fast access to learning - available 24x7 at point of need
3. Improve Competitiveness - respond quickly to changing business needs
4. Improve Productivity - skills & knowledge when needed
5. Address statutory learning effectively – faster, better, cheaper compliance
6. Reduce Carbon footprint - reduce travel & meeting costs
7. Harness Informal learning - connect learners with resources and experts

Interestingly, I’ve heard of layoffs by some e-learning suppliers and in-house departments, but increased sales in others. This confirms my view that there’s pain and gain, depending on what you do and for whom.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Going out ain't social

My ears were ringing for two days after seeing Primal Scream. You gotta love a little live ‘rock n’roll’ now and again, a dose of Dionysian pleasure. So here a conundrum. Although I spend a pile of time online, this has only increased my thirst for drafts of intense, real life events. It’s as if each has become an antidote to the other.

What is it to be ‘social’?

This isn’t a yearning for the social. Facebook is far more of a social experience than going to the theatre, cinema or concert. The scale, intensity and dynamic nature of the social interaction on Facebook is way beyond the idle chit-chat with relatively small numbers of people you get in these real places. In fact, people are loathed to speak to strangers at arts events. The only exceptions to this are popular sports events such as football where thousands will sing, chant, shout and chat with those around them.


High social

Facebook –network of friends – multiple chat  - anytime *****

Messenger – multiple chat – with cam ****

Email – one to one – daily ****

Conference – networking in coffee breaks and evening ****

Football match – social singing – lots of chat ****


Medium social

Down the pub – small social group – chat fuelled by alcohol ***

Dinner party – small social group fuelled by alcohol ***

At work – open office – chat ***


Low social

Gig –social but on an emotional level **

Theatre – brief chats in the foyer *

Dance – same as theatre *

Classical concert – people hardly socialise at all, certainly not with strangers. They don’t even speak to the people sitting next to them *

Cinema – not social at all – it relies on the suspension of disbelief and other viewers are often an annoyance – crunching popcorn, crackling sweet papers, slurping coke *

Art exhibition – nobody speaks to anyone - 0

What we yearn for in the real world is not primarily social, it’s transformative experiences. Real social experience is in inverse proportion to the degree of live performance. Just because there’s lots of people around doesn’t make it a social experience. Being in a live audience is often being part of an anonymous non-social mob.


Are we being driven to polarised extremes, with online social activity at one end and live non-social performance at the other? Does increased activity online lead to an increased need for real ‘reality’.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Is an audience of one a lecture?

At almost every conference I attend, someone reads an entire lecture verbatim from notes. Is there anything dumber? It’s a throwback to a non-literate age. I can read. In fact, I can read faster than they can speak. It’s an insult to the audience.

One of the saddest learning stories I’ve ever heard was from the actress Tilda Swinton. She was the only student who turned up to a lecture at Oxford by Raymond Williams where he read out his lecture, from notes, from behind the lectern, and neither of them even acknowledged each other. How sad is that? Almost every University has even worse tales of lectures where not one student turned up.

Samuel Johnson saw the folly of it all:
‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!’

As David Hume, observed, it is the content, not the person who matters:
‘ you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor.’

Thursday, November 27, 2008

'Aspirational' not inspirational teachers

My two teenage boys are 15 today. They’re twins and as different as the sun and moon. One’s tall (6’3”) the other shorter (5’7’), one is left-handed, one right-handed, one loves music and drama, the other maths and science, one’s chatty, the other quiet. Having twins is like running a live genetics experiment. It also allows you to do double-blind trials (only joking).

I often show their pictures at conferences and explain that much of what I’ve learnt about technology and motivation has come from observing or talking to them. As their mother drove me to the station we were talking about their teachers. It stuck us that they’ve had two absolutely aspirational teachers in their life, neither who work in schools. I use the word ‘aspirational’ as I think it’s what marks the following observations apart from the traditional ‘inspirational’ model. This is not to decry the many excellent teachers they’ve had in schools. (There’s some outstanding teachers in their school and I’ve been lucky enough to witness the drama teacher and others give absolute master classes in teaching.) It’s just that there’s more to life than school.

Howard – master teacher
The first is a guy called Howard Mayes, who teaches them both Tae Kwon Do. Both boys love and deeply respect this guy, who’s been teaching them four or five times a week for six years. Howard loves what he does with a passion, enjoying teaching and training as much as the hundreds of students aged 3-63 that attend his classes. He’s also a master psychologist, knowing just when to praise and when to correct. He’s taken his students to world class level (including one of my boys who won a silver medal at last World Championships), the other has won medals at national level. Even more impressive is the way he’s taught our boys to teach others. They now get paid to teach younger kids, under his supervision, and have learnt stacks from this experience. Interestingly, in school, they are rated rather low on marks in PE, as they don’t like rugby or football!

As parents we owe Howard a lot, and I can’t praise this sport enough. Originally from Korea, via Chine, Tae Kwon Do has become a massive sport with more practitioners worldwide than any other martial art. Indeed, it is more than a sport, as it focuses on control, trust, self-discipline, respect for others, concentration of mind, flexibility, high levels of fitness, as well as defence. Just as importantly, it’s about instilling intrinsic motivation in the person. The pupil strives to become the master by mastering themselves. Many parents are turning to disciplines like this, as it develops the whole person, giving them a range of useful life skills.

Phil – maestro teacher
OK, now for the second inspirational teacher. This guy Phil is my boy’s (the musical one) drum teacher. He’s over 60 but as lively and quick-witted as any 20 year old. Phil has taught drumming to hundreds of people, sometimes teaching the sons and daughters of those he taught years ago. Again, he’s a master with young teenagers, taking them at just the right pace, with lots of encouragement but also doses of discipline. He organises master classes with famous drummers and gets them to help out at gigs. Phil has the experience and personality to be a great teacher. This, for me, matters a lot. Playing the drums has opened up a whole new world for my son. He’s been introduced to jazz, swing, samba, percussion and all sorts of musical styles and now plays in a band of mixed age every Friday night. He loves it when the old guys get on down with Mambo No 5.

Of course, Phil really knows what matters and that’s practice. This is what distinguishes many school teachers from people like Phil. School teachers are not, in my experience, big on homework, because they place undue emphasis on the classroom and their own role as teachers. People like Phil see their role as mentors. The classes are just the starting gates. It’s what they do on their own that counts.

Lessons learnt?
Sorry, if this all sounds like proud dad stuff, but the important lesson here is that, for many parents, the learning outside of school is often of a higher quality than that in school. Why is this?

The lessons, for me, are clear:
1. Mixed-age peer groups are often better than single-aged peer groups
2. Trained teachers are not always the best teachers
3. Teachers have to really love what they do
4. Teachers must win the respect of their learners
5. Teachers must win the respect of parents
6. Teachers have to like the kids they teach
7. Teaching must be aspirational
8. It’s all about practice
9. Learners like being asked to teach
10. Schools need to embrace those who teach outside of schools
11. Good teachers make students aspire to succeed

This last point is important. Inspirational teachers seem to me to be performers and often appear to be the ideal. Great teachers play a more important role, making learners aspire to higher levels of achievement. They understand that it's not about the teacher but turning the learner into a teacher to both themselves and others. There's a big difference.

My kids hate missing any lesson from these two guys, which is a little different from their attitude to school. I would like to see at least one afternoon a week given to paid external teachers. At the very least I’d like to see external teaching and learning recognised by schools and examination boards. Shouldn’t a student who is at the absolute peak of physical fitness, trains five times a week and competes

Monday, November 24, 2008

Leadership training – cause of credit crunch?

Leadership – the egos have landed
When I asked the Head of ‘news-presenter training’ at the BBC to give me a pithy statement describing what it was like training TV presenters, she said just four words, ‘The ego has landed’. What she meant was that taking a journalist and turning them into a TV star puffs them up so much, they become almost unbearable, assuming God-like qualities and knowledge on subjects they know nothing about.

Has the cult of ‘leadership’ contributed to megalomaniac behaviour that ultimately led to the financial crisis? All of this leadership lark is quite recent. For years we got by with management training, good old sensible stuff about being nice, clear and organised. Then, around the Millennium, the training world went all evangelical about ‘Leadership’.
Now the last thing you want to do with a bloated ego is feed it a diet of hubris. These guys (and it’s mostly guys) lap it up – it turns them into Ken Low-like monsters. When you over-inflate a balloon it floats away and is no longer grounded. They think they’re omniscient and omnipotent.

Leadership training
Leadership training may be partly to blame. With no solid core of theory it’s a potpourri of ideas. The cult of leadership, a relatively recent phenomenon, was grabbed with glee by the training community. A mishmash of management theory, culled from a few airport management books, they put their slides together and became leadership zealots, simply padding out the word ‘Leadership’ into a course, a miscellany of mumb-jumbo. No end of half-baked leadership consultants, who couldn’t lead a dog up a garden path, came on strong. Suddenly, it made trainers feel that they were at the leading edge of the organisation, training the leaders of tomorrow. In fact, they were goading their leaders to act even more irresponsibly.

First there was massive confusion in the field, with theories covering almost every logical possibility. We have Charismatic, great man theories (born not made), Trait theories (key qualities), Contingency theories (look at the environment), Situational theories (choose differently for every situation), Behavioural theories (one can simple learn how to lead), Participative theories (collaborative and inclusive), Managerial theories (organise and reward), Transformational theories (leaders inspire followers). You pay your money and take your choice.
Complex behaviours and skills are reduced to simple geometric diagrams, a pyramid here, an interlocking circle here, a four quadrant typology there. Leadership training became a byword for contradictory theories and over-simplification. A few choice quotes are thrown in, preferably from historically famous leaders, some interactive exercises, straight out of traditional management courses and you’re off.

Leadership and risk
An insidious feature of some gurus and courses was that leaders were encouraged to be uber-risk-takers. Risk taking (sometimes under the guise of innovation) became a badge of honour. The slightest hint of weakness was frowned upon. This led to Leadership programmes that weren’t big on managing risk; that was left to Boards and governance bodies, packed with their chosen friends. Non-executives are largely the personal friends of executives in the UK, and the risk register seen as rather old-fashioned and quaint management method, given cursory treatment at board level. Actually the main risks sometimes don’t appear at all. In practice, leaders in banks couldn’t manage risk, because they couldn’t work out what risks they were running.

Leadership gurus: a culture of narcissism
Tom Peters, Marshall Goldsmith, Stephen Covey, Tony Robbins.... they are certainly part of the problem. (Funny how you don’t get women leadership gurus, a credit to their gender and good sense.) I‘d call these false prophets, as they are basically song and dance men, all performance and no substance. It’s good old fashioned preaching with stories, parables, miracle cures, and live performance.

Tony Robbins, a narcissistic Neanderthal, is typical. A tax cheating (convicted), plagiarising (convicted) fraud. His ideas on health are stupid, but harmless. What’s harmful is his use of bogus studies – he quotes a ‘Yale study’ that shows that the 3% of Yale students who wrote down financial goals became richer than the other 97% put together (actually an urban myth). His leadership nonsense is based on training’s shameful cult – NLP, and James Randi has famously exposed some of his techniques as snakeoil scams. This is what passes as high quality corporate motivational and leadership training.

Tom Peters is not far behind with his little parables and maxims. He’s an all too common type in this field - a man devoid of theory. His first book In Search of Excellence with its 7 ‘S’s and 43 excellent companies turned out to be complete rot. Over a third of these companies were in serious financial trouble within five years of the book being written. There was even a book called In Search of Stupidity that satired his approach. Peters had simply picked large behemoths that were dominant in their stable markets, as soon as these markets changed they were too big and stupid to change. He also confessed to having faked the data in the book.

Robin Sharma, lawyer turned leadership guru, with his little poems on the fridge door. The more expensive the speaker, the more fatuous the content. If you’re in any doubt as to the phoney, hokey nature of this guy, watch this.

Why are so many people suckered with this stuff? David Hume explained it all in his masterpiece essay On Miracles (1748). Firstly, we all have an overactive sense of wonder which means we are easily drawn into aspirational ideas, the more miraculous the better. Secondly, our gullibility is increased when we actually want to believe something, and the people who pay to see these guys talk, and buy their books, are believers before they start. Hume was talking about Jesus and religious superstition, but the parallel with leadership training is obvious.

Leadership gurus: a culture of celebrity
An offshoot from the culture of narcissism, leadership training became the last refuge of washed out celebrities and sports people. I can’t tell you how many dull sports stars of yesteryear I’ve heard mumbling out platitudes between their schoolboy anecdotes. Football players rarely play this game as they barely made it through high school. So we’re left with an assortment of oddball sport people. The problem here, is that many sports, such as golf, tennis, swimming, track etc. are devoid of key management skills. These are obsessive, solitary creatures, who spend much of their lives training in isolation. It’s a solipsistic world. Even in team sports, there’s a coach or manager who has to make the strategic decisions and get them organised.

Leaders: Type 1 Megalomaniacs
Fred Goodwin, ex-CEO of RBS, refused to use the word ‘learning’, insisting on ‘training’. This was the man who insisted on staff at the Clydesdale wearing the company tie, an egomaniac, proud of his ‘Fred the shred’ moniker. His bank, now 60% in public ownership, he managed on fear, with the HR department that could be best described as a casualty department. This is the leader who took out a writ against a Sunday newspaper because it had the temerity to question the wisdom of his megalomaniac monument building around the new HQ. In the end he turned out to be the leader who couldn’t calculate risk and took RBS’s share price from 442p to 50p, made £15.5 million in salary in four years, and walked away with a £8.4 million pension pot. Is he contrite and has he shown any remorse? No , Good-win is a bad loser – thankfully now shredded.

He’s only one of a whole rack of ‘bankers’ (you know what I mean) who trousered £54 million in just five years, others include; Adam Applegarth (Northern Rock), John Varley (Barclays), Stephen Green (HSBC) and Andy Hornby (HBOS).

Leaders: Type 2 Barrow boys
Is anyone seriously suggesting that Alan Sugar is anything other than an ill mannered boor? Do we really want to hang on his every bad word about making money? The Leader who said, about women, "You're not allowed to ask, so it's easy, just don't employ them”. The whole ‘Apprentice’ thing looks decidedly grubby in this climate, with Sugar playing the bully and the participants devoid of intellect, talent and even good sense. If these are the ‘Leaders’ of tomorrow, god save us. This type will do anything to make money.

Leaders: Type 3 Crooks and hucksters
What about those four automobile CEOs who immediately after stating that they’ve laid off tens of thousands of workers and demanded billions in support, refuse to give up their fleets of private jets (yes fleets). These guys have annual salaries in the tens of millions and they only travel in private jets and some have negotiated that their wives will only travel in private jets. These guys had so little management insight that they continued to produce gas guzzling SUVs while foreign car makers decimated their market share. These leaders are self-indulgent crooks.

But the King of the hucksters is Ken Low or Enron fame. These guys deliberately set out to steal from customers and shareholders. It’s all about amassing personal wealth and nothing will stop them and their well-paid advisors (Andersons – remember those crooks?) from achieving their goals. I admire the US’s approach to this type of fraud – they haul them off in cuffs. In Europe, they get away with it.

Lions led by donkeys
‘Leadership training’ plays to a culture of narcissism and celebrity that feels the need to promote egos way beyond what is reasonable. It produces Type 1/2/3 leaders. It’s a world that says, ‘We’re all losers, so let’s worship the winners’. And where did these leaders take us? They robbed us and their organisations blind, with bonuses and share options disengaged from performance.

Cool, calm analysis and intellect was replaced by mission statements and hubris. These so called leaders had to behave like religious figures, exhorting others to strive for more, pushing everyone faster and faster. Missions replaced good sense and debt became a virtue, not a vice. Believe me these banks and investment companies all had ‘values’ and training on ethics. It would seem that it never got near their so-called leaders.

If we’re looking for academic leadership, we need look no further than Drucker, who hated the idea of ‘Leadership’ and ‘Leadership’ training, or Jim Collins, who took hard empirical evidence, from thousands of companies, to see what really made good leadership (not necessarily good individual leaders). Not surprisingly, his conclusions contradicted almost all of the ‘false prophets’. God leadership turns out to be good management. Steady, analytical, smart people who know how to deal with others. The good thing about Collins is his focus not on isolating good leadership but in seeing what makes a good organisation tick.

We could do worse than scrap ‘Leadership’ courses and all the hubris, and get back to simple, sensible management training.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Mozart effect – a requiem

I spoke to a very smart woman, and learning professional, who was sitting next to me at a black-tie dinner last week, who extolled the virtues of playing Mozart to her children when they were very young and when they were learning. This, she claimed, had been proved scientifically to improve IQ and their ability to retain knowledge. She even extended her claim to the foetus. It was the vehemence and absolute certainty of her claim that made my bullshit alarm scream away like a banshee for the next hour.

Sparked off by a paper in Nature by Rauscher, Shaw and Ky (1993), which showed a small improvement in spatial reasoning score (very specific), the effect lasted no longer than 15 minutes, then disappeared. The theory also disappeared, as several follow up studies could not replicate the effect.

There’s usually a villain in such stories and in this case it’s Don Campbell, who published The Mozart Effect (1997) and The Mozart Effect for Children. These books are, quite simply, bogus. His claims bear no resemblance to the actual research and, if you have this idea floating around in your brain, it’s largely down to him trade-marking the effect, then publishing these books, that were then taken up by lazy ill-informed journalists. This is how it ended up in the minds of many parents and teachers. It was even funded and applied in some states in the US, notably Georgia and Florida.

Rauscher herself, disclaimed the idea, saying that they had made no claim linking the playing of Mozart to intelligence. Chabris and Steele in a meta-studies paper in 1999 put the nail in the coffin by showing that such effects are merely the result of short-term and temporary ‘enjoyment arousal.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Ambassadors – look and learn

I’m in London at least once a week and always take time out to get to a gallery, museum, exhibition or the theatre. The National gallery is perfect for a quick one hour browse but it’s big, so I usually pick one room or have a specific artist or painting in mind. Last week it was Holbein.

Have a look at this wonderful picture. It’s huge, painted in 1533 of two men aged just 25 and 29, young and still learning. And that’s precisely what the painting is about – learning.

Dress and learning
The two figures represent the secular (left) and the clerical (right). The guy, on the right, wears a black hat and cloak, a colour that symbolised intellectual, introspective qualities and learning. This meaning survives in the black mortar board and cloak seen at University graduations. The guy on the left is a worldly learner, a man of action (see the dagger). Even the floor pattern upon which they stand indicates the Macrocosm, Pythagorean and Platonic themes, with the four ages of man, four seasons and four elements (earth, air, fire and water).

Objects and learning
It’s an unusually large painting but it is the stuff in the middle that has courted most attention. At first glance it looks like a jumble of objects, but it has lots of significance in terms of learning. It’s actually a full curriculum with lots of sophisticated allusions.

Man is the measure of all things here and it is man’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the earth and heavens that is being shown. There’s the distinction between the celestial heavens on the top shelf, and earthly, terrestrial pursuits on the bottom. There still exists this distinction between knowledge and skills, or academic and vocational, in most modern curricula. Indeed it is a full curriculum that is being shown on these shelves; the Quadrivium with four of the mathematical sciences (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) of the seven liberal arts. You have to see this as a bold statement reinforcing the move towards learning as being both practical and academic, unlike the scholastic Medieval curriculum that had gone before. A similar distinction is made between the daring dagger on the left and the hand on a book on the right.

There are books, but there’s also the practical application of knowledge through the instruments of cartography and music. There’s even an allusion to the virtue of mathematics in business through a business arithmetic book. Remember that this was the first flowering of the printing press, commerce and the free exchange of cross-curricular ideas across Europe. Mathematics, then, as now, was a subject central to both practical and philosophical and theological inquiry. The debate still rages today.

But what I love most about the picture are the allusions to the frailty and limitations of the human learner. The broken lute string refers to the difficulty in establishing harmony in human affairs. The imperfections on the faces of the sundial and the illusion of the skull show the limitations of our abilities and endeavours. The skull is quite simply bizarre. It represents mortality and the painting was probably hung alongside a doorway so that you eventually see its grinning face in proper perspective as you walk past. This was the age of plagues, where death was literally on one’s doorstep.

The crucifix peeping out from behind the curtain top left seems to have a unification of the churches function. I’m not so sure, but that’s what’s so great about this painting it can be interrogated for ages and there’s lots of ambiguity. When I first saw this, to my secular mind, it suggested the influential, but retreating role of religion (Hendry VIII is best known for rolling back the power of Church).

The painting shows us that learning is important. It takes us beyond the surface of appearance and earthly or over-abstract affairs. Learning is a matter of balance. This is a lesson educators even today have not fully grasped. The curriculum and learning is still hopelessly mired in old categories. We still teach Latin in schools, maths isolated from its applications, music on classical instruments played by only a few...... The balance between knowledge and skills has still to be addressed over 500 years after this was painted. Next time you have a spare hour in London, go see this masterpiece.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Comedy e-learning awards

Inspired choice
Another awards bash. Marcus Brigstocke, comedian often seen and heard on TV and radio, was an inspired choice. He opened the World Open Learning Awards by saying welcome to the ‘World Of Leather Awards’, so it was clear that he wasn’t going to take the evening too seriously. And more power to his funny bone. He’s a stand-up comic and not so much an awards ceremony as a fantastically funny comedy set, where he used his considerable observational humour to ridicule the hotel, meal, winners, sponsors and guests. No one was spared. It was priceless.

It started late, so most the guests were well oiled when he took to the stage after an introduction by the sponsor, the Daily Mail! Yes, the Daily Mail. He started by ribbing them mercilessly. His mother reads the Mail, which he described as a broadsheet for people with short arms, and he always knows when she’s read something awful in the Mail as she starts her sentence with ‘Well the thing that really frightens me is...’ (immigrants, Europe, labour politicians, yobs, youths, unemployed etc.) Lord Northcliffe founder of the Mail, famously said that he wanted to give people ‘a daily hate’. It became a running gag.

We then had him asking the audience where they came from, with a few choice ripostes:

West Country – you see that thing in the centre of the table (a candle) that’s fire, you don’t touch that.

Scotland – they’ll be begging for food at the border soon. The Celtic Tiger; mangy, smokes sixty a day, drinks shorts and eats chips.
Birmingham – the bullring will look great when they take the bubble wrap off, not a place where the inhabitants suffer from a surfeit of regional pride.

Anyone from Norwich? Gimme-six, an entire city with only two surnames, no wonder the Norwich Tourist Board say it's coming into its own (some gasps at that one) get the drift.
I won't print what he said about the Germans. Very awkward for me as I was sitting at a table with some delightful folk from Munich! Thankfully they took it in good humour.
The Paragon Hotel was called the Paradox Hotel and although he liked the ballroom ‘you’ve always got to worry when the foyer smells like old carpets’. Spot on with that one. The rooms were little better than doss house standard. It wasn’t advisable to walk on your room’s carpet, even with shoes. He asked us all to applaud anyone who tried to eat the poached pear dessert. They were so hard that spoons were bent trying to scoop bits off – the rubric pear, he quipped.

But his best material was kept for the winners. When he read out the shortlisted Royal Bank of Scotland and their programme ‘Understanding Business’, the entire ballroom exploded into laughter. RBS then actually won an award for another entry, and I swear that ten people got up on the stage – no wonder they’re losing money.

Then there was an award to the BBC for (I kid you not) ‘Safeguarding Trust’, more hilarity, then the BBC again with ‘Leadership Essentials’ and ‘Coaching for leaders’, our table was poorless with laughter. Don’t get me wrong the guys at the BBC do great stuff, but oh the irony. As he said, ‘sometimes the jokes just keep on writing themselves’. There was by now a curious correspondence between real world disaster stories and winning training. A statement was read from the judges that said they had awarded the BBC the award because it had been taken by 21,000 people, an astonishing take-up. True, Marcus said, he had also taken the programme, as it was compulsory. Even the BBC people were laughing like drains.
You wonder about trainer's ability on the marketing front when the presenter can barely pronounce the title of the programme. We had some real gems:
European Pedagogical International Computer Training Licence - Pedagogical!
West Midlands Local Government Association West Midlands Coaching Pool Partnership West Midlands Coaching Pool Programme - Was this a record beating title for playing pool?

When a shortlisted NLP programme, made for the bank First Direct, was read out it felt like the 1990s. Surely this old nonsense has had its day? Reed Learning won Learning Organisation of the Year, taking us back to the 1980s, and the penultimate award seemed to be for best building, won by the no doubt fascinating, flipchart equipped Moller Training Centre. Suddenly it all felt like the 1970s.

However, it all ended on a high as Charles Jennings won the Outstanding Contribution to E-learning. Marcus was puzzled by the choice of James Brown’s Sex Machine when Charles walked to the stage, or is there more to Charles than meets the eye? And well done to the other two in this category – Laura Overton, tireless campaigner and Neil Lasher, who had a Grand Prix car on his stand in the exhibition.

My favourite gag of the evening was, ‘Only 36 shopping days to Christmas, except if you’re a bloke, then there’s only one.’ So congratulations to the organisers for a great night, a night when an industry learnt that it was OK to chuckle at itself. After staggering to bed at 3 am, I had to get up at 5.45 the next morning to catch a train - I was in dire need of Durham County Council's shortlisted 'Substance Misuse e-Learning Solution'.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mind games for christmas

I’m not the greatest fan of black tie dinners but I did have a real hoot at the e-learning awards, where our table (Caspian Learning) won the award for best game/simulation. These guys are smart and really do understand the role of games in learning. This is probably the most exciting field in e-learning at the moment. The software is good, the price finally reasonable and the results outstanding. It led to some interesting chat on the role of games in technology and learning.

New to the game
This Christmas, games’ ads on TV are no longer just gunfests and smackdowns. It’s whole families on sofas playing the Wii, older couples playing Brain Training on the Nintendo DS and everyone exercising on Wii Fit. The industry has finally raised its game to break free of the traditional laddish genres. The new Nintendo DS has two cameras and allows you to create an avatar (of yourself, to insert into its downloadable games). This is personalised learning taken to the max. It’s a whole new ball game and the floodgates are now wide open for fun and games to enter all sorts of new territories.

Game shape the future
Games, it could be argued, are now shaping the future of technology itself. By revolutionising input devices and interfaces, games and gadgets have redefined the user experience. It started with comfortable controllers for consoles, then add-ons like steering wheels, guns and other real-world things you could hold in your hand. Then came gyroscopes and the detection of movement in real time and space with the Wii. Tilt detection in devices like the iPhone/iTouch allow you took at satellite images, tilt the screen and see the landscape tilt into 3D. Guitar Hero and a raft of other applications gave you a near-real experience of playing the guitar or drums. Games input devices became wireless as did the devices. The new Nintendo DSi has the full web page on the top screen and a magnified section on the bottom screen. On graphics, games have led the way, technically and aesthetically, influencing the movies, television and advertising. AI is now largely advanced in the games world. All of this is happening at breakneck speed in a highly competitive market. Where else would young people queue up all night to spend £50 or £300 out of their own pocket on a game or console? How much do you think they spend on traditional learning?

Two can play at that game
A feature of many games is the online dimension, where you can play others, compare scores, download and upload. My two teenage boys are quite comfortable in chatting with guys from the US “Hey dude, what’s it like in England?” using VOIP before proceeding to massacre each other online. Guitar Hero allows four mates to form a band and online gaming involves cohorts of thousands, even millions. World of Warcraft has become a global phenomenon and don’t forget Disney’s Penguin Club and dozens of other successful online gaming environments. Games have come to define web 3.0.

Social gaming
Social networking has also embraced viral casual games. Facebook is fast becoming a games platform, a good example being Caspian’s Christmas Game, where the viral nature of the game and presents sent, has given it real viral qualities. Forget Christmas cards, send someone an online present. Social gaming is getting very BIG, very fast.

Mobile gaming
Games are a vital component in devices such as iPOD touch, where the cleverness of its tilt technology allows new forms of gaming. This has become the way in which the device is marketed. Although mobiles have different operating systems, screen sizes and capabilities, almost all mobiles have Java, which turns them into little computers. Downloaded games is therefore big business. The iPhone and Google’s Android are creating whole new game markets as they’ve encouraged external developers to create content. Mobile games are HUGE.

Mind games
The name of the game should now be mind games, where you play to learn. It’s the antithesis of all that page turning stuff and, as Caspian have shown, be superior in terms of learning outcomes. Many of the basic problems in numeracy and other subjects and skills could be alleviated by the simple introduction of games into learning. The research by Derek Roberson, now peer reviewed and published is very clear – it works. Just sprinkle a little of the magic dust of games into learning and you solve the root cause problem in numeracy – motivation. Games are pushing the boundaries on technology, interfaces, software, leisure, movies and interaction. Education and training is now fair game.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Rapid tools: more bubble machine than bubble

It’s not that the Rapid Tools market is a bubble, it’s a bubble machine, with thousands of little fragile bubbles all floating out and popping within seconds of their creation. Most of these tools and VLEs have the longevity of a fruit fly.

Tools buyers as false starters

I once worked with the CEO of Linguaphone, one of the biggest companies in the languages learning market. They sold CD-ROMS and online stuff to teach you how to learn French, Spanish, Italian, whatever. One day he confessed that that his real market wasn’t language learners at all. Their marketing term for their customers was ‘false starters’, people who wanted to learn a language, buy the product, get started, then crash and fail. He whispered that he had made millions from selling shelfware to people who didn’t learn a damn thing.

Is it the same in the rapid tools industry? Are the buyers, by and large, false starters? Are they being sold the illusion of quick and easy quality content, then get hit with the fact that it’s not so easy? On the whole, I think this is the dynamic in this market. Making these tools has become easy, selling them darn impossible. With sites and blogs galore publishing Top 100 Tools lists, is there any other market where there’s more tools, one for one, than clients? With the price point low and cost of sale high. It’s damn difficult to make money here.

Word doesn’t make you a novelist

A hammer doesn’t make you a carpenter, Excel doesn’t make you an Accountant, Powerpoint doesn’t make you a good speaker... I could go on, and often do, but you get the point. The question is, does this market, its buyers, and investors, really get this point? What percentage of the overall task becomes more productive with most rapid tools? Less than 5% I’d say. Most of the real effort is in design, graphics etc.

Quantity not quality

Templates for screens and questions are fine, but this leads to the Powerpoint problem. The end result is usually a series of mind dumbing, stab-point, text heavy, clip art rubbish. It traps you into a page-turning, manual on screen model, when many of the learning tasks demand more, much more. Just as the e-learning market was starting to produce a broad canvas from simple through scenario-based up to simulations and games, it plunges itself into a quantity not quality model.

Clip-art clowns

With rapid production, as soon as you need images, the clip-art clowns come out to play. Sure you can clip-art away, and infantilise both content and audience, but don’t pretend this is serious learning. I’ve seen medical e-learning programmes dealing with chronic diseases and terminal illnesses clip art the subject to death (sic). Health and safety, compliance – you name it, someone will clip it, trivialising the subject.

Lord Privy Seal

Or you can Google image search and come up with a series of disjointed photographs. The BBC used to have a Lord Privy Seal rule when teaching people about editing. When mentioning this person, you don’t simply show a picture of a Lord, followed by a picture of a WC then a seal. Image to noun stuff is hopeless. They had a point.

Graphics is a skill and most people don’t have this skill. A few cheap brushes and a paint-set doesn’t make you an artist. It doesn’t even make you a basic and competent graphic artist. So why should a basic authoring tool and a graphics package make you a competent content designer?

How do you monetise Rapid e-learning?

Model 1: Communities ain’t cash

OK, let’s create a community. Fine, if you want some dodgy stats to impress investors, but not if you need to generate income. Communities are largely free, fickle and feral. It’s damn difficult to get them to pay, they’ll jump ship at the drop of an ad and take more than they give. Communities are the domain of not-for-profit ideas, like Wikipedia. Crazy strategy. High risk, low reward.

Model 2: Tools as Trojans

Some use their tools as a Trojan horse, leading to real revenues with real margins. Typically, it will be a door opener, with all the baloney about how you’ll be able to make this stuff yourself with little or no previous experience or skills. Then, when you buy it, realise that’s not on, you come back and get them to do it for you. And by the way we’re a licensed reseller for this, that and the next thing. A ‘going nowhere quickly’ model. Low risk, low reward.

Model 3: Forget tools, go bespoke

Some realise that the best solution is to simply make stuff. Sell on the illusion that’s it’s a quick DIY solution, then do it for them. This is Kineo’s very successful model. They’re a bespoke e-learning company with a stripped down process. They never meant to be bespoke, but that was the only way they could make money. This, in my view, is a reasonably smart model. Low risk, medium reward.

Model 4: Sell out

Tools need a brand along with the money, geographic reach and marketing expertise to market and sell that brand. The only people who think this is easy, or cheap, are technical people, often the brains behind the tool, and people who have never run a business, which is almost everyone in education, training and development.

To cut to the quick, to be successful you need to sell your company to a bigger player and ride on the back of their ‘suite’ of tools approach and their clout on global branding and marketing. This is what happens to good tools. They get bought. Selling out is the way to success, usually to a global software company. This may be the best and only way to making lots of moola. High risk, high reward.

Model 5: Go it alone

Ok, you’ve developed your tool and want to make money but don’t want to do any of the above. You’re a pure tools player. Problem is, no one’s ever heard of you and getting them to listen costs cash. Disastrous model. High risk, certain failure.

Don’t get me wrong, good tools are good things, but how many tools does one need in this market? People have short memories. We had dozens of LMSs and LCMSs and VLEs emerging around 2000 and by 2003/4 the market had consolidated into a few winners Saba, Blackboard etc. This was consolidation by attrition, not acquisition. In my 25 years in this industry, I’ve seen hundreds of tools created with 99% of them ultimately dying a quick, sometimes painful and lingering death.

Moogle takes off!

After their rip-roaring success with Rocket Coursebuilder, the guys from Rocket have launched Rocket Moogle; an open source, VLE, LMS, LCMS, CMS, repository, community building, media sharing, curriculum planning, virtual classroom, talent management, e-portfolio, synchronous and asynchronous, web delivered, portal and search engine. A multilingual, AICC, SCORM compatible, end-to-end, enterprise-wide platform.

It allows you to design, create, author, edit, launch, publish, communicate, collaborate, personalise, reuse, assess, timetable, distribute, track, administrate, survey, index, schedule, manage, ROI, report, certificate, customise, promote and sell; online, offline, distance, adaptive, self-paced, blended, stand-alone, formal and informal learning.

When it comes to learning platforms, we all know that a complex system that does not work is invariably found to have evolved from a simpler system that worked just fine, but this hasn’t stop Rocket from forging ahead with even more functionality. In an innovative approach to personalised learning, Moogle tracks your behaviour online and offline categorising you as Millennial, Generation Y, Generation X, Baby Boomer, a foetus or dead. It then delivers learning targeted at your generational learning style.

Intuitive, easy-use, user-friendly, affordable, scalable (infinitely), secure, fully integrated, just-in-time, feature-rich and ready-to–use. Integrated with web 2.0 tools including Blogger, FaceBook, MySpace, Skype, Messenger, RSS, Second Life, iTunes, Flickr and Twitter.

What’s more, it runs on PCs, Macs, all mobiles, PDAs, Blackberry, PSP, Nintendo DS, Xbox, Playstation 2/3, Wii, iTouch, iPod, e-books, sat nav systems, some digital cameras and pagers.

Already selected by several Global banks to provide compliance training, thereby protecting them from their employees, it also provided their regulators with BOS* reports to prove that every possible effort was made to learn without putting people off selling. *(BOS – Bums On Seats)

Written by a 2-bit company who don’t like competition 1-bit, it’s Rocket science!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

All of the Above - how to cheat Multiple Choice questions

Forget objectives, start with questions

I never liked the 'start with the learning objectives' advice on designing content, and preferred to start with writing and polishing these objectives as test items. This seemed that much more real, practical and relevant than forced 'Mager-like' objectives. Get the assessment right and the rest seemed to follow. This, I suspect, is why students much prefer to get past test papers to establish the real contents of a course.

Of course, writing good test items is far more difficult than many imagine, which is why many tests and not really tests of understanding, merely tests of recall. An interesting way of coming at this problem is to do some reverse engineering. Ask how students can cheat their way through a test.

There's the usual crib notes. The best I heard was, remove the lable from a bottle of orange juice, writing the crib notes on the back of the label.paste it back on, then drink orange to reveal the notes. But let's assume that pure cheating is out. What are you left with?

Second-guessing the test designer

Many multiple choice questions are poorly written. What better way to expose these errors than write a crib sheet for learners? So here goes with my 20 ways to cheat Multiple Choice tests:

1.    Skip the hard questions, mark them with a cross, and go back to them. This means you’ll not lose marks for unanswered easy questions.

2.    If in doubt choose ‘C’, poor questions designers do not truly randomise the right options and have a bias towards ‘C’. Next best is ‘B’.

3.    If in doubt choose the ‘longest option’. Question designers often cannot make a right option any shorter, but have complete freedom with wrong options.

4.    Look for similarities in options and eliminate outliers (in bold) e.g. 4p-q, 2p+q, 4p+q, 3p+q.

5.    Now note that there’s only one ‘-‘, which makes 4p+q more likely. Look for these internal patterns.

6.    All of the above’ is likely to be correct. For it to be correct the writer has to design options that were all correct, so, if you can’t spot any wrong answers, or see that two or more are correct, it increases the probability of ‘All of the above’ being correct. Similarly with ‘None of the above’.

7.    Choose a middle order option i.e. out of 100, 150. 200, 250, choose 150 or 200. Designers tend to have a bias, where right answers tend to be lower than the highest and higher than the lowest option.

8.    For questions that demand an ‘except’ or ‘not’, mark each option with a T for true and F for false against each option. And underline the word ‘not’ as it’s sometimes missed.

9.    If there’s a typo or punctuation error, the option is likely to be wrong. Writers tend to proofread correct answers only.

10.  Look for grammatical agreement between the question and its options; ‘An.....’ and words starting with vowels or agreement between subject, object or verb.

11.  Go with your first impression. The more you read, the more you tend to read into the wrong options.

12.  If you’re stuck, go with the ‘Least bad rule’. Eliminate least likely answers first.

13.  Look for clues about answers from other questions. Designers often, unintentionally, put clues, even answers, to questions in other questions.

14.  If you’ve never heard of the answer, it’s likely to be made up and incorrect.

15.  First cover the options and try to answer. Prevents being misled by clever wrong options.

16.  If two options are opposites, one is likely to be correct. Designers first made up option is likely to be the correct option’s opposite.

17.  Favour options with careful qualifiers, such as ‘sometimes, occasionally etc.’ as tested knowledge usually has more finite than absolute qualities.

18.  Conversely, be wary of options with absolute qualifiers, such as ‘always, never etc’. As these are often too definite to be reasonably correct.

19.  Always guess, unless there is a penalty. It’s a 1 in 4 chance, so don’t give it up.

20.  Eliminate obvious answer on 4 options then guess, don’t fail to answer. This reduces the odds from ‘1 in 4’ to ‘1 in 3’. Far better than just guessing or not answering, depending on any penalty scores for wrong answers.

None of the above

This crib sheet can be used by question designers to improve their tests. Good students put themselves in the shoes of the test designer to improve their chance, so the more you know about their techniques, the better designer you’ll be.

I still see binary option questions with ‘Try again’ logic, grammatical disagreement and stupid options. Some time back in this blog, after they refused to respond when I emailed the mistakes through, I had a go at BBC Bitesize’s science tests, as they were riddled with these errors. 140 comments later, it still pops up on the home page when you go to BBC Bitesize through Google.

Writing good multiple choice questions is not easy. What’s easy is simply extracting all the nouns, objects and quantities, then testing for recall. The trick is to push beyond this to test understanding. It’s not the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ that often matters but remains untested.

Why questions matter

Professor Dylan Wiliam, Deputy Director of the Institute of Education, Professor of Educational Assessment gave a brilliant ALT talk (Seb Schmoller put me on to this) on what calls ‘hinge questions’, questions that literally diagnose poor understanding. He explains how one can use these questions as powerful verbal test items in a classroom, where it is difficult to diagnose 30 kids quickly. This is a technique every teacher should learn.

The ball sitting on a table is not moving. It’s not moving because:

A. No forces are pushing or pulling on the ball.

B. Gravity is pulling down, but the table is in the way.

C. The table pushes up with the same force that gravity pulls down.

D. Gravity is holding it on to the table.

E. There’s a force inside the ball keeping it from rolling off the table.

This question not only catches common misconceptions, it diagnoses between those who have understood the ‘physics’. C is correct.

What can we do to preserve the ozone layer?

A. Reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air

B. Reduce the greenhouse effect

C. Stop cutting down the rainforest

D. Properly dispose of air conditioners and fridges

Looks like the designer ran out of options and put the last item in to make up the numbers, but it’s actually the right answer. Interestingly, this was one of dozens of mistakes in BBC Bitesize,

Which of the following is NOT an effect of burning fossil fuels?

A. global warning

B. ozone depletion

C. acid rain

D. smog

E. fog (right according to BBC)

Ozone depletion is also correct as the result of CFCs which are completely artificial (they did not exist in nature prior to synthesis by humans). They were used in air conditioning/cooling units, as aerosol spray propellants prior to the 1980s, and in the cleaning processes of delicate electronic equipment. They are not the result of burning fossil fuels.

Wiliam’s point about the imortance of classroom questioning, is that; 

“The variability at teacher level is about four times the variability at school level. If you get one of the best teachers, you will learn in six months what an average teacher will take a year to teach you. If you get one of the worst teachers, that same learning will take you two years. There’s a four-fold difference in the speed of learning created by the most and the least effective teachers. And it’s not class size, it’s not between class grouping, it’s not within class grouping – it’s the quality of the teacher.”

This led him to determine what separates good from bad teachers.

“And actually, new teachers are actually pretty bad. You don’t really learn to teach at all well until you’re six or seven years into the profession. And some recent data from Australia shows that the amount of value added by teachers actually carries on increasing for about twenty years.”

And here’s a brilliant paragraph.

“The key concept here—the big trap—is that teachers do not create learning. That’s true teachers do not create learning, and yet most teachers behave as if they do. Learners create learning. Teachers create the conditions under which learning can take place. Our schools don’t function like that, which is why somebody once joked that schools are places where kids go to watch teachers work.”

The solution, given the fact that reducing clss sizes is incredibly expensive, is to use diagnistic 'hinge' questions. This accelerates the teacher's knowledge of the state of learning of the learners and accelerates the learning.

Dylan William also co-authored, with professor Paul Blackgave, the brilliant Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, another ‘should be compulsory’ text for educators. This makes the obvious point that far too much teaching is simply 'chalk and talk'. If you don't believe this walk into any school and you'll see it in practice. It's a manifesto for more formative assessment.

Why questions matter

What matters? All of the above and more. Questions really do matter in learning. 

Questions and curiosity

First, they stimulate curiosity. Almost all of my learning as an adult has this dynamic. Something intigues me and I follow it up as I'm curious to find the answer. This is the great joy of having the internet as a resource. It has made this type of inquiry and research possible.

Questions and diagnosis

Good qestions diagnose your strengths and weaknesses. You don't know what you don't know and questions uncover the often uncomfortable truth that you know less than you thought you know.

Questions and improvement

Questions and searching for answers are fundamental to the process of learning. Roger Schank has been using this apporach in all sorts of contexts, and this truly structured Socratic approach, works well when used by a skilled practitioner. 

Questions and motivation

To create the conditions for learning, as opposed to just delivering content, questions are the true stimulus. 

Yet, despite these advantages, few have the real skills to either construct or deliver formative or summative feedback at the level necessary for true learning. It's a real skill.